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The days when the only stages in a solicitors career path were qualification, partnership and retirement are fast disappearing.
Historically, after qualification solicitors were typically known as assistants or associates. These are essentially the same thing but at some firms associates fall between the assistant and partner levels. The number of years an assistant has been qualified is often referred to as post qualification experience or PQE. This is an important reference point because traditionally an assistant solicitors pay was linked to the number of years they have been qualified. This system is known as associate lockstep.
IS ASSOCIATE LOCKSTEP DEAD?
These days career paths for solicitors are not as simple thanks to the Age Discrimination Act, which came into force in October 2006. It prohibits recruiting with reference to age and it is therefore deemed that the term PQE could contravene this.
As reported in Lawyer2B.coms sister magazine The Lawyer last month, the majority of top 20 firms are creating systems that will make traditional PQE references redundant.
Indeed, Bircham Dyson Bell and US firm Arnold & Porter have already decided to scrap the PQE system.
The biggest impact of the demise of associate lockstep will be on the way associates are assessed and in turn remunerated. Allen & Overy, for example, has rolled out a competency framework which refers to three types of associate: junior, mid-level and senior. Associates are assessed on expertise such as client-facing skills.
Firms such as Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), Pinsent Masons and Simmons & Simmons have also introduced similar bands to remunerate and assess associates, breaking from the traditional associate lockstep.
At Pinsents, after qualification you become a solicitor. Then, after four years, you are in a position to be promoted to associate. Two years after that, the role of senior associate is up for grabs, with partnership the next rung on the ladder.
At each stage the lawyer is evaluated in terms of their ability to work with other people, contribution to the firm, financial performance, client relationships and technical skills.
Increased responsibility comes with each promotion, and higher scores are expected across the evaluation criteria. HR head Jonathan Bond says: We realised we needed to give more clarity to lawyers and rolled out something called the capability framework.
He adds that he had received positive feedback from the firms lawyers after launching the scheme at the start of this year.
The more detailed structure, which includes regular appraisals and merit-based targets, helps lawyers get a deeper understanding of what they are best at and steers them into roles where they can flourish.
In addition to the debate on associate lockstep, firms are also placing increased attention on work-life balance as more lawyers concede that partnership is no longer the be-all and end-all.
Indeed, a recent survey by The Lawyer found that only 37 per cent of lawyers in the top 10 firms say they are aiming for partnership.
For those who are not attracted by partnership, a number of top City firms, including Allen & Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith and Travers Smith have introduced the role of counsel or of counsel as an alternative to partnership.
BLP, meanwhile, has created the role of associate director as an alterntive to partnership.
Some see the counsel route as a trade-off between sharing in a firms profit and quality of life for those who do not want to commit to being a business partner at the firm but still want to keep their job as a lawyer.
Travers Smith managing partner Chris Carroll says: The aspiration of assistants these days is not always to work flat-out for partnership. Some seek part-time and flexible working arrangements, which we seek to accommodate.
By asking what lawyers really want from their careers, law firms have found that money is not everything when it comes to attracting and keeping its fee-earners.
The typical ways to address the work-life balance are through flexible working and social events. More firms are now willing to offer flexible programmes such as part-time working or working from home, as lawyers priorities shift from partnership to quality of life.
Advances in mobile technology have helped. Beachcroft is launching a pilot flexible working scheme in its new office in Bristol, providing lawyers with laptops and BlackBerrys.
Beachcroft partner Michael Bothamley says: The key point here is simple: it gives our lawyers the option to work anywhere in the world. Only lawyers in supervisory roles will be required to come in.
He adds: We recognise that we cant provide jobs for life, so we want to offer everything else that we can.
In terms of improving the social scene, many of the top 100 firms now have a specific budget for lawyers to organise events and get to know each other out of the meeting rooms.
Bond at Pinsent Masons says: Every office has a budget for entertainment and everyone is invited.
The profession is changing rapidly. Lawyers qualifying in the next few years will find their older peers bewildered at the wealth of new schemes available to them.
To get the most out of these advances, you should be honest with yourself early on. Try to work out what aspects of the job you enjoy most and how much responsibility you want and follow that path.
You will be part of the first generation of lawyers able to do so.